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We remember

Polish-Canadians share wartime tales

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Jan Zygadlo and Andrzej Kreutz are two Polish-Canadians for whom Remembrance Day holds a special significance. Each year on November 11, they reflect on their own experiences during World War II and are thankful just to be alive.

Kreutz lived in Krakow, Poland when the war broke out. Although he was only a young boy at the time, the memories remain clear in his mind.

"We lived in extreme fear," remembered Kreutz. "Fear of getting arrested, fear of detention, fear of repression; a constant fear that we would not survive."

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Krakow was divided into three sectors: the German sector, the Polish sector and the Jewish sector. Kreutz and his parents were forced to move from the Polish sector to the Jewish sector, while the Jews were relocated to the Jewish Ghetto.

Kreutz's father died in 1941 and he was left under his mother's care.

"It was just my mother and me, because all the rest of my family perished," said Kreutz. "She protected me."

Kreutz and his mother lived in the former Jewish community for the entire duration of the war. He did not go to school, but was taught at home and seldom left the house.

He remembers hearing the sounds of bombs and terrified screams from outside his window. Kreutz witnessed people collapsing to their deaths in the streets, either killed outright or dying of sickness and starvation.

"I led a very uncertain life," he said. "I was forced to grow up. I was aware of the situation and had to deal with it like an adult. I became a very spiritual person."

When the Red Army arrived in Poland in 1945, Kreutz remembers feeling relieved.

"The Red Army brought in a new political system, but German occupation meant extermination, which was much worse," he explained. "Now at least we had a chance to live."

Kreutz feels lucky he never had to leave Krakow during the war, and even luckier to have survived.

Jan Zygadlo has a different story. He lived with his family near the Polish-Ukrainian border when the war broke out, and still remembers the day when Russian soldiers came pounding on his door at 4 a.m. in June of 1942.

"They came to take my family away," remembered Zygadlo. "Without any further notice, they piled us into a truck and we were taken away to a camp in Siberia."

In Siberia, the conditions were treacherous. The family, along with others at the camp, lived in barracks built by Polish exiles from previous generations. The food was dispersed by the Russians based on how much work was done. Usually, Zygadlo received only 400 grams of bread a day in addition to a little bit of soup. For most, this was not enough.

Zygadlo, the eldest of four sons, remembers watching his mother die of starvation and illness.

"It was very painful for us," said Zygadlo. "And my mother was not the only one to go. All around us people were dying by the tens, by the hundreds."

When Hitler turned on Stalin in 1941, the Soviet Union formed a partnership with the Poles. Zygadlo, along with many other Poles, was told that he was free to join the Polish army. However, this newfound freedom was mostly illusional.

At the camp, the Russians stopped providing food and shelter, while the days became colder. Although Zygadlo was free to join the army, he had no idea how.

A few weeks after the Poles were declared free, six men in Zygadlo's camp were arrested. One of them was his father.

"They took him away in a truck and that was the last I saw of him," said Zygadlo.

Now in charge of his three younger brothers, Zygadlo knew that he had to do something.

"I knew if we stayed in the camp we would die over winter," he said. "If even one of us could make it out alive, we could tell the world what had happened."

The brothers boarded a train that was heading for Uzbekistan, hoping Zygadlo could join the army.

"On the train, we were crammed like sardines. One by one, people were dying off from starvation and sickness."

Among those who died was Zygadlo's brother. His body was placed on a hitch and disposed of when the train stopped. Zygadlo and his two remaining brothers stayed on the train for three months, eating what little food they could find and sleeping on the cold floor.

One month into the trip, Zygadlo got pneumonia and his brothers took him to the hospital. He had a very high fever and was in a coma for three days.

"There were eight people in that hospital," he said. "Two of us came out alive."

The boys re-boarded the train and on December 18, 1942, they arrived in Uzbekistan, where Polish units were already forming. Zygadlo was accepted into the army but his brothers, who were too young, had to stay behind.

During military camp, Zygadlo got typhoid from a fellow soldier in training. He was in critical condition for many days.

From Uzbekistan, Zygadlo traveled to Egypt, Iran, Palestine and Turkey, fighting in the Polish army until the end of the war in 1945. He relocated to Italy and was reunited with his brothers a few months later.

Both Zygadlo and Kreutz eventually made their way to Canada, Zygadlo in 1946 and Kreutz in 1973.

They are grateful to be alive and able to tell their stories.

"It's very important for me to talk about this," said Kreutz. "We need to remember World War II so that such a tragedy never occurs again, ever."

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